Review: Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

I took a little time off from my pursuit of Zatoichi completion, and what better way to return than with the excellent Zatoichi #9?  Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)  is one of the best of the Z films I’ve seen.  Not only is it a great entry in the series, but it’s also good enough to be a successful standalone film that newcomers to the franchise could embrace without knowing anything else about Ichi.

Directed with the subtle skills only an experienced director like Kimiyoshi Yasuda could bring to the table, Z9 is a delight on every level.  I only wish that Yasuda had directed more entries in the series as his were always top notch.  This film is even better than some of his others due to a very fine script by Shozaburo Asai.  I’m not entirely certain how many of the screen stories really originated with the novels of Kan Shimozawa.  My understanding is that Master Ichi is little more than a side character in his novel(s) so I doubt that very many of the film stories are directly attributable to Shimozawa.  Nevertheless, he’s credited with “story” on most, if not all, of the movies.  I’m sure that credit was a contractual point (film credits rarely reflect the real world work done) but it denigrates the real contributions made by writers like Asai.  In this film, he crafts a cunning tale that winds thread after thread into a tapestry of plot points that eventually come together in a very satisfying way.

The film begins with Ichi, once again agreeing to do a favor for someone.  You might think he’d figure out that these favors always end badly, but then we’d never have these great screen adventures, would we?  Ichi’s willingness to help others even when he has an inkling that it will come to no good, is simply a big part of the character.  He always wants to help, despite his blindness.

Once he’s at his destination, a small village governed by a corrupt overlord and his just as corrupt intendant, Ichi finds himself in the middle of a tangled web of revenge-seekers and opportunists just before the new year holiday.  The new year celebration is the biggest holiday in Japan, largely due to the Shinto focus on purity and renewal, so it’s also the focus of many business people trying to make a buck, much like Christmas in the US.

The plot here isn’t all that different from the other Z films.  What’s different is the clarity with which it’s presented and the care that’s taken to make the pacing work.  Sword fights are few, but when they do occur they have much greater impact both on the characters and the story at hand.  Eliminating some of the swordplay gives us more time to spend with Master Ichi and we’re actually given a small glimpse of his past.  It isn’t much, but it’s moving and it makes us root for his success even more than usual.

The characters here are all masterfully developed even though their scripted lines may be minimal.  I always felt like I knew who everyone was as I was watching.  In some Z films, traffic control becomes an issue, but in Z9 the large cast of characters is well managed and no one is given short shrift.  As always, Shintaro Katsu renders an amazing performance that’s helped by a script that actually gives him things to do.

The only down side to this movie is the literal darkness of some of the scenes.  One of the more spectacular fights happens in moonlight and is practically wasted.  I don’t know if this is the fault of a poor transfer or the fault of DP Shozo Honda, but since Honda shot 22 films in his career, I tend to blame the transfer.

Also of note is the music in Z9.  Taichiro Kosugi’s score is wonderful, accenting the inner feelings of Ichi at all the key plot points.  This may sound like a little thing, but it wasn’t always grasped by Japanese filmmakers.  They often mimicked American and European film scores (and still do for that matter) without truly understanding the emotional underpinnings of European classical music.  Kosugi was obviously an exception and I wish he’d been employed on other Z films.  Sadly, this stands as his only Zatoichi score.  I can only imagine the heights to which other films in the series could have soared with his contributions.

Overall, this is an exceptional film and possibly the best of the series (I’ll let you know once I’ve seen them all).  Very highly recommended (and currently available on Hulu).

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